All of us have an “internal subjective space”, the world of our internal experiences – of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and the interpretations of these perceptions.
Usually, people know where this internal space begins and where it ends – their “ego boundaries” are said to be intact. (I should emphasize that the word “ego” means very different things in western psychiatry and in yoga psychology. I will detail these differences in a later post.)
But profound alterations of this “inner subjective space” can occur, and ego boundaries can dissolve. From the perspective of contemporary western psychiatry, the dissolution of ego boundaries is a pathological or at least, an unnatural phenomenon, seen in drug induced states and psychosis, and occasionally in hysterical religious experiences. Even if it’s not seen as a pathology, these states are certainly not the goal of any western psychotherapeutic modality.
However, in Yoga, the dissolution of ego boundaries is the goal, the very purpose of the practice. A pure undifferentiated blissful state of being, where observer and observed are one – to the Yogi, this is the description of self-realization, to the psychiatrist, this is psychosis.
What is one to make of this seeming contradiction? That what seems to be psychotic or abnormal in one culture is the pinnacle of human psychological development in another?
I will return to the issue of ego boundaries in a later post. But for now, leaving aside the slightly troublesome issue of dissolving ego boundaries, let us consider the issue of the “inner subjective space”: In eastern as well as in western descriptions of mental states, we see that the “inner subjective space” constricts during times of anxiety and stress and expands during moments of peace and happiness.
If thoughts and emotions are paint, then the internal subjective space is the canvas. Western psychotherapy focuses on the content of the subjective space – thoughts and emotions.
Yoga on the other hand, accentuates the space itself, the backdrop of thoughts and emotions. Therefore, even more than hypnosis or guided imagery, Yoga and meditation is an exploration and expansion of a person’s inner world.
When a person complains of anxiety or stress, feeling constricted, worried, fearful, the western trained psychotherapist explores thoughts, emotions, childhood issues, relationships and so on. But in psychotherapy based on the principles of Yoga, the person is guided so that they can reflect on their own internal state and then “expand” their internal subjective space.
The practice of Yoga involves a gradual experience and expansion of different “subjective spaces”: the limits of the body, the extent of the breath, the space inside the mind.
Worrisome thoughts – the source of the pain from the perspective of cognitive therapy – seem less relevant as the person experiences this expansion.
In this manner, a therapeutic method based on Yoga psychology decreases emotional distress by changing the context (space) of the mind, rather than the content (thoughts).
When the “inner subjective space” expands, troubling thoughts and painful emotions dissolve in an ocean of dynamism, equanimity, resilience, and peace.